MOSCOW -- Alexei Navalny, Russia’s most popular and charismatic opposition leader, was sentenced Thursday to five years in prison and ordered to pay a fine of about $15,000 in a high-profile embezzlement trial that Navalny claimed was politically motivated.
The district court trial in Kirov, a regional capital about 500 miles northeast of Moscow, was based on the alleged 2009 embezzlement of about $530,000 in timber trade from a local company, which has since gone bankrupt.
[Updated, 10:30 a.m. PDT July 18: Thousands of people angered by Navalny’s conviction took to the streets of Moscow on Thursday.
Demonstrators, some carrying portraits of Navalny, filled two downtown thoroughfares near the Kremlin as they demanded that the opposition leader be freed.
Riot police confronted the crowds, trying to restrain them and keep them to sidewalks. Passing motorists honked their car horns in a sign of support.
“I came here to express support for Navalny, who fell victim of biased Russian justice tightly controlled by [President Vladimir] Putin,” Anna Frakhman, a 21-year-old graduate chemistry student told the Los Angeles Times. “My friends and I decided to stay here all through the night in protest against the Kremlin’s repressions.]
“The court of the city of Kirov established that Navalny organized the committing of the crime, managed the execution of embezzlement of someone else’s property entrusted to the guilty party in especially big volume,” Judge Sergei Blinov read in handing down the sentence. “Assertions to the effect that Navalny is prosecuted for political motives are far-fetched.”
Navalny’s alleged accomplice, Pyotr Ofitserov, was also found guilty and sentenced to four years behind bars and a $15,000 fine.
Both were arrested, handcuffed and led out of the courtroom immediately after the judge finished reading the sentence.
“OK, don’t miss me here,” Navalny managed to post in his Twitter account in his last moments of freedom. “And the main thing is: don’t be lazy, as the toad will not push itself of its own accord off the oil pipe.”
Navalny, 36, a blogger, lawyer and political activist, was officially registered this week as a candidate in the Moscow mayoral election to be held in September. The conviction, if not overruled, automatically disqualifies him from that race and any future election.
One of the most outspoken critics of the Kremlin, Navalny invented the term “Party of Swindlers and Thieves” for the Kremlin United Russia party, a name that stuck and helped deliver a shattering humiliation to Putin’s party in December parliamentary elections, in which United Russia barely managed to get about 50% of the vote. Experts claimed the vote was marred by massive ballot stuffing.
Navalny gained popularity a few years ago when he accused the state-owned natural gas giant Gazprom of multimillion-dollar corruption and initiated an official investigation that was later suspended.
Since then, he has attacked a number of influential officials and politicians including Alexander Bastrykin, head of the Russian Investigative Committee, and Vladimir Pekhtin, first deputy chief of the ruling United Russia parliament faction, accusing them of owning undeclared real estate abroad.
In a scandal connected with his alleged lavish apartment in Miami, Pekhtin had to quit his parliament job, followed by a number of other lawmakers similarly compromised by Navalny’s investigative efforts.
Navalny’s embezzlement case began in 2010 and was soon dropped. It was reportedly relaunched on Bastrykin’s personal orders after Navalny accused the powerful investigative official of owning an undeclared apartment in the Czech Republic.
Navalny, a fiery orator, has more than once called Putin a thief at opposition rallies and marches, a charge that came back to the opposition leader during Thursday’s sentencing.
His conviction, government critics say, makesg him the second most famous political prisoner of post-Soviet Russia after former oil tycoon and Putin enemy Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was arrested in 2003 and convicted twice in 2005 of fraud and tax evasion, and in 2010 of stealing oil.
Khodorkovsky is serving a term in a corrective camp in the Russian northwest and is expected to go free next year.
In courtroom remarks two weeks ago, Navalny compared the trial to a television series aimed to publicly discredit him.
State-owned television portrayed him as “this very thief who stole all the timber in the Kirov region,” Navalny said then. “As if this can in any way change all that I write about real thieves who are stealing billions and who have usurped power in our country.”
Some experts claimed Thursday that Navalny’s conviction could in the long run be ruinous for the Kremlin.
“It is quite symbolic that Navalny is sent to prison on Nelson Mandela’s birthday date, indicating that the Kremlin is doing its best to grow a Russian Mandela,” Andrei Piontkovsky, a senior researcher with the System Analysis Institute said in an interview with The Times.
“Navalny is backed by a group of powerful oligarchs, and his imprisonment can create a serious split in the ruling elite with a strong possibility of anti-Putin conspiracy at the very top,” he said.
Piontkovsky added that Putin “is committing a very serious if not lethal mistake indulging in an act of personal vengeance.”
Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was out of town and unavailable for comment Thursday, his aide told the Times.
“The Kremlin is creating a political martyr out of Navalny, whose popularity will be dramatically growing from now on,” said Kirill Kabanov, head of the National Anti-Corruption Committee rights group and a member of the Presidential Council on Civic Society and Human Rights, a Kremlin advisory body.
“I am sure officials on the local level have just overdone their job in a fit of bureaucratic zeal, and the Kremlin may find a way soon to remedy the situation by compelling a higher court to change the harsh sentence to a suspended term.”
Sergei Markov, a Kremlin advisor and staunch Putin supporter, hailed the sentencing and said the public will forget all about Navalny in a couple of years.
“There will be no political consequences and repercussions in regard to the verdict,” said Markov, the pro-rector of the Russian Plekhanov Economic University. “Some oligarchic groups in the West spanning from New York to London supported Navalny as a would-be leader of an anti-Putin revolution, a plan which is now doomed to failure.
“Navalny has never been an independent politician,” Markov said.
[For the Record, 6:47 a.m. PDT July 18: An earlier version of this post stated that Russian oppostion leader Alexei Navalny was fined more than $30,000 in an embezzlement case. He was fined about $15,000.]